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Many at risk from heat


As the days of high temperatures and humidity continue to add up, medical experts warn, the risk of heat-related illnesses also climbs, especially among Maryland's elderly.

"We'll start seeing elderly people dying," said Dr. Tom Kirsch, an emergency room physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "Five thousand people across the country die each year from heat illness."

An individual's physical ability to cope with heat diminishes with age, he said. Medications often taken by the elderly can aggravate the problem, and many elderly find it difficult to get out of the house to a place with air conditioning. Humidity only worsens the effects of high temperatures, by reducing the effectiveness of the body's attempts to cool itself by sweating.

Also at risk are young and otherwise healthy people who simply try to do too much in hot weather.

"The most important ways to prevent heat injury is to keep hydrated," he said. "Drink tons of fluids. . . The other thing is to get out of the heat."

Many older Baltimoreans live without air conditioning, Dr. Kirsch said. "They should go to a shopping mall or a grocery store to allow the body to cool down."

Early signs of heat illness include headache and light-headedness. Victims should be given fluids, sprayed with water and fanned. If the symptoms include odd behavior, confusion, a cessation of sweating or a loss of consciousness, Dr. Hirsch said, they are suffering from life-threatening heat stroke.

"It's exceptionally important that they get cooled down as soon as possible, so they should be brought to the hospital immediately," he said.

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